Exactly where and when the roots of speed skating where laid is impossible to trace. In many places in Europe, in particular in Scandinavia, Northern Europe and the Netherlands animal bones of cow and horse have been found dating back a millennium. These were used to move around on the ice and travel during the winter using the rivers, canals and lakes.
The history of speed skating begins with the invention of the skate made of timber with an iron runner. This made it possible to make the specific skating movement that provides speed. It is generally assumed that this iron skates were born in the Netherlands somewhere in the 11th / 12th century. While it has been found that skating competitions were already held in the 14th century. It is not until the 16th century that people started seeing skating as fun or sport. In Norway, King Eystein I, boasted of his skills racing on ice. In Scotland a better version of the iron bladed skate was developed in 1592. However, it was King James II that popularized the sport in England, when he returned from exile in the Netherlands. It was quickly taken up by the working people in the Fen-district, an area in Cambridgeshire with comparable climatic conditions to the Netherlands and continued to grow in popularity in Scotland where the first official skating club – The skating club of Edinburgh – was born in 1642. In 1763 the world saw its first officially recognized speed skating race. It was held on the Fens in England. A message from that area is available in the British Magazine of 1763 showing that John Lamb and Feorge Fawn competed after a bet to skate as fast as possible from Wisbech to Whittlesea – a distance of 15 miles. Lamb won in 46 minutes.
The competitions in the Fen-district were disorganized and had many epiphenomena’s as lotteries. Because of that, in 1879 the National Skating Association (later to become NISA) was established. It was the first skating association in the world and was set up on Saturday 1 February 1879 by a number of prominent men of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire
The newly-formed National Skating Association held their first one-and-a-half-mile British professional championship at Thorney in December 1879. There was a field of 32, including former champions Turkey Smart and Tom Watkinson. Fish Smart beat Knocker Carter in the final. His reward was a badge, a sash and a cash prize, given as an annual salary in installments in order to encourage the champion to “keep himself temperate”. The NSA also established an amateur championship, which was held for the first time at Welsh Harp, London, in January 1880, and won by Frederick Norman, a farmer’s son from Willingham. The professionals were laborers who skated for cash prizes; the amateurs were gentlemen who skated for trophies.
Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, people began touring the waterways connecting the 11 cities of Friesland, a challenge which eventually led to the Elfstedentocht – the most famous long distance skating race in the world and one that it still going today. The Netherlands came back to the fore in formal competition speed skating in the 1880’s adopting the British system of timed races over a set distance and organized their first national championships (held in 1887 in the Dutch town Slikkerveer and won by the Englishman George Goodman Tebbutt). The influence of the British NSA led to the creation of a Dutch skating association which later became the KNSB – possibly the most powerful and successful long track association today. A few years later Netherlands organised the very first world championships. These were held in Amsterdam and included participants from Russia, the United States and Great Britain.
In 1892 the ISU (International Skating Union) was born in Scheveningen in the Netherlands by 15 national representatives and became the first international winter sports federation. Subsequently, by the start of the 20th century, skating and indeed speed skating had come into its own as a major popular sporting activity.
Initial competitions were held over a variety of distances but the ISU standardised the distances (500m, 1500m, 5000m and 10000m) and the track size (400m) soon after its inception. The ISU also standardised the competition format with skaters starting in pairs, each to their own lane, and changed lanes for every lap to ensure that each skater completed the same distance. This is what is now known as long track speed skating and the basic layout and rules have hardly changed since.
The NSA hosted its first official international ice skating competition under ISU rules in Birmingham in 1899. Until 1990, when an independent society was formed, the NSA was also the UK’s governing body of roller skating. As a consequence of the segmentation, the NSA became the NISA (National Ice Skating Association), the headquarters of which are now based at the National Ice Centre in Nottingham.
Long track speed skating became an Olympic sport in 1916 and moved to indoor rinks in the 1970s. The UK can boast the oldest ever speed skating Olympian - the Fens skater, Albert Tebbit - who competed in 1924 at the age of 52 managing a respectable 20th place in the 5000m.
After early successes in the sport, disgruntlement between the NSA and the Fens riders, together with changing economic conditions, two world wars and a series of mild winters, the UKs participation in the sport started to dwindle. Despite this, just after the Second World War, Britain had what was perhaps our finest hour in the sport. Johnny Cronshey, a member of the Aldwych Club, then of Richmond, came 9th in the 1947 World Championships. He followed this amazing feat by coming second in the 1951 World Championships in Davos, only losing to the legendary Norwegian, Hjalmar Anderson.
Speed skating, however, continued as a sport on the indoor ice hockey rinks with 20 clubs in England and Scotland competing weekly in a national league and for team and individual trophies, it enjoyed a strong following. Skaters from most clubs went abroad to train on the Longtrack and this enabled GB to be represented in all of the Olympics and major Championships up to 1992. Indeed, in the 1960 Winter Olympics our two representatives, Terry Malkin and Terry Monaghan (both from Bournemouth) both broke the world record for the 10,000m. Unfortunately for them, so did a number of other skaters going after them and so they were never credited with their feat in the record books.
The Scottish Speed Skating Association were lucky enough to have overseeing them, Glen Henderson, a millionaire car dealer from Ayr. Glen had a passion for Longtrack and acquired the services of Leen Pfrommer, a previous Dutch National Coach who had the likes of Ard Schenk, Kees Verkerk and Jan Bols in his team from ’67 to ’72. The Scottish skaters benefitted from Leen’s input and training sessions abroad. Scotland produced some good skaters down through the years.
By the early 70s, when the move to indoor 400m tracks came (which was not taken up in the UK), the sport fell further from the popular forefront. A valiant effort was made to establish an ‘Outdoor Training Group’ based at Heerenveen under coach Jeen Vd Berg. This ran for three years but shut down before managing to produce an outstanding skater.
Finally, the increasing recognition of Short Track as an international sport in 1976 was another factor in the decline of Longtrack. Skaters could now become an international on the small rinks and even make it to the Olympics . When GB won the first ever international event at short track beating the Americans, Canadians and Japanese...we were up there with the best of them at this ‘new’ form of the sport – one that matched our native facilities - this meant still less attention was given to the development of longtrack athletes.
Too bad that the once popular speed skate culture in England almost died. However, whenever there is natural ice the people in the “Fenlands” still speed skate. Like in 2010, covered in a video-report by The Guardian. In spite of what has happened over the last 20 years or so, there are skaters who have ventured abroad to develop themselves as longtrack athletes with Matt Lindsay, Phil Brojaka and Scott Anderson being the latest examples. There are still many fans of Longtrack in the UK. Trips are organized to see major championships and keep up with the records and top skaters.
Given the history it is time to bring the UK back on track and return to the top with long track speed skating and it is highly appropriate that we are again doing this in co-operation with the longtrack skaters of the Netherlands with whom we can trace back our co-operation and competition for nearly 300 years.
1) Handboek Wedstrijdschaatsen, ISBN90-74252-73-7
2) Schaatsen.nl, artikel Marnix Koolhaas dd 12-11-12
3) Eerste titelstrijd in 1887 in Slikkerveer, Marnix Koolhaas, 03-11-11